Tuesday, April 21, 2009

The root causes of Somali piracy

Another group presented in my Post-Conflict Justice class yesterday, this time on Somalia. The country has led a lot of headlines lately, primarily because pirates off the coast captured an American ship and took Capt. Richard Phillips hostage. Now that Phillips has returned home and everyone is sure to stop paying attention, the Pentagon has announced that it plans aggressive military action against the pirates. We might as well declare war on sneezing in spring.

Somali piracy is merely a symptom of the massive problems Somalia faces. Despite sharing a common language and ethnicity, the country's rival clans have warred with each other for decades, a trend perpetuated by the western European countries that colonized the Horn of Africa. This didn't get much attention until the 1990s, when the U.S. and U.N. intervened, with good intentions and horrific results. Now, there is anarchy, and a clan formerly known as the Islamic Courts Union, now Al-Shabaab, has moved in to exploit it and place the entire country under Sharia law.

The people of Somalia had not been fed, and we gave them guns. Then other countries, recognizing Somalia's weakness, stole their fish and used their coastline as a toxic waste dump. What, honestly, did we expect? Before we start attacking Somalians again, we would do well to learn from our mistakes. We don't need another Black Hawk Down. Piracy is wrong, and stopping it would be nice, but it won't happen until we address the real causes. These pirates are viewed as heroes in Somalia because they're the one group who can put food on the table. If we go after them now, history will repeat itself and no one will come out ahead.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Think of Haiti

Two papers are calling my name on this gorgeous Friday in Virginia, but I have to mention Haiti. On Monday a classmate and I gave a joint presentation about the country in our Post-Conflict Justice/Rule of Law class. We each spent at least 10 or 12 hours researching the country, which is full of great stories — being the world's #1 sugar producer and home of the world's only successful slave rebellion — and failures, such as a history of overthrown leaders and an impoverished people with little hope for the future.

This week Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited Haiti. Now she's reminding the world that as the economic crisis hits us all, it hits the poor the hardest. Nowhere in the western hemisphere is there a place as poor as Haiti. They do not deserve the poverty, did not bring it on themselves. Their poverty is the result of a series of leaders, notably Papa Doc and Baby Doc Duvalier, who have taken advantage of a largely illiterate public and embezzled millions at the people's expense. The country's institutions remain in shambles, more than two decades after Baby Doc was exiled.

As so many people continue to feel sorry for themselves here in the United States — some rightfully so, of course — we would still do well to look southward, at a nation, Haiti, that desperately needs our help.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Vermont becomes #4; Watch D.C. next

The Vermont Legislature legalized same-sex marriages today, overriding Gov. Jim Douglas's veto of the bill by the slimmest of margins in the Vermont House of Representatives, 100-49. The bill required 100 votes to pass; a key Democrat switched his vote after voting against the bill last week.

In 2000, Vermont became the first state to legalize civil unions (as the NY Times story notes, New Jersey and New Hampshire later did the same). Gay rights advocates in Maine and Rhode Island have pushed for the legalization of same-sex marriages, arguing that civil unions do not go far enough, and make gay couples appear unequal.

I agree. This post discusses the differences between civil unions and marriage, and there are many. Because the federal government does not recognize civil unions, such couples cannot file taxes jointly or enjoy benefits conferred to married couples. In a 1997 letter responding to a former Illinois representative, Henry Hyde, the General Accounting Office identified 1,049 federal laws "in which marital status is a factor." The office divided these into 13 categories:

  1. Social Security and Related Programs, Housing, and Food Stamps
  2. Veterans' Benefits
  3. Taxation
  4. Federal Civilian and Military Service Benefits
  5. Employment Benefits and Related Laws
  6. Immigration, Naturalization, and Aliens
  7. Indians
  8. Trade, Commerce, and Intellectual Property
  9. Financial Disclosure and Conflict of Interest
  10. Crimes and Family Violence
  11. Loans, Guarantees, and Payments in Agriculture
  12. Federal Natural Resources and Related Laws
  13. Miscellaneous Laws

Numbers three (taxation) and four (federal and military benefits) contain 179 and 270 provisions, respectively. Benefits available to married couples include deductions of estate taxes, gifts of property, government-assisted relocations, as well as health benefits, life insurance benefits, and retirement annuities for surviving spouses. None of these benefits are available to couples in civil unions. Federal employees with a sick spouse are also entitled to unpaid leave, a benefit not conferred on single persons, or persons in a civil union.

Civil unions will not last. Within five or ten years, most of the blue states — and some red ones, too — will have legalized gay marriage either by legislative fiat (Vermont) or through the courts (Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Iowa). This is a very good thing.

In what may become the most publicized battle for same-sex marriage, the District of Columbia City Council also voted today, 12–0, for a bill to allow recognition of gay marriages. Mayor Adrian Fenty supports gay marriage, but for the bill to become D.C. law, Congress must give its approval.

The California Supreme Court is still weighing its decision whether to uphold Proposition 8, a constitutional amendment which banned gay marriage in the nation's most populous state. Also watch Minnesota to see if it's the next state in the Midwest to legalize same-sex marriage.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

What a difference Iowa court has made

A UCLA study says that Iowa's decision to legalize same-sex marriage will result in a net economic gain of $5.3 million, today's Des Moines Register reports:
- Income tax: $1,254,000
- Inheritance tax: -$1,391,000 (Iowa would lose money because of a marital deduction for state inheritance taxes)
- Sales tax: $2,668,000 (annually for the first three years)
- Public assistance savings: $2,786,000

TOTAL: $5,317,000 net gain

Source: The Williams Institute at the University of California, Los Angeles
This morning I wrote this letter to my old newspaper, the West Branch Times, highlighting the difficulties that citizens have had in obtaining the rights granted to them by constitutions:
Oh, what a difference a court can make.

In January 1857, 21 Republicans and 15 Democrats met in Iowa City to draft a new constitution for the state of Iowa, focusing primarily on banking and the rights of African-American men. When Iowans ratified the document, they agreed to allow banking, but flatly denied the vote to black men. Iowa women would not get the full right to vote for another 63 years, with the passage of the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

Despite this obvious discrimination in the original Iowa Constitution, the drafters included an important provision as Article 1, Section 6: "All laws of a general nature shall have a uniform operation; the general assembly shall not grant to any citizen, or class of citizens, privileges or immunities, which, upon the same terms shall not equally belong to all citizens." With the 1857 ratification, Iowa's version of the equal protection clause passed 11 years before the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which granted equal protection of the laws to all U.S. citizens — at least in theory.

But as so frequently happens, rights granted to people in the Constitution did not become reality until a court said so. Not until 1954 did the U.S. Supreme Court decide that the 14th Amendment meant that black schoolchildren could attend the same public schools as white schoolchildren. Only in 1967 did that same Court hold that equal protection meant blacks and whites could marry, striking down a heartless Virginia law. And not until 2009 did the magnificent Iowa Supreme Court recognize that same-sex couples could enjoy a right, marriage, that most certainly belongs equally to all citizens.

Because the Iowa Supreme Court can recognize rights in the Iowa Constitution that the U.S. Supreme Court has not yet found in the 14th Amendment, same-sex couples in 47 states now look to Iowa with envy. Since the decision last Friday, I have worn my black and gold wardrobe with pride. I come from a place that recognizes rights, "even when the rights have not yet been broadly accepted, were at one time unimagined, or challenge a deeply ingrained practice."

As is so often the case, today I am proud to be an Iowan.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Same-sex marriage will be legal in Iowa!

Citing Marbury v. Madison, McCulloch v. Maryland, Lawrence v. Texas, Dred Scott v. Sanford, and Brown v. Board of Education, the Iowa Supreme Court today ruled that the state statute defining marriage as between a man and a woman is unconstitutional under the Iowa Constitution. Beginning in three weeks, same-sex couples will be able to marry in Iowa. (Read the full, awesome, unanimous opinion here. No. 07–1499.)

I'm going to quote some of the best excerpts:
In fulfilling this mandate under the Iowa Constitution, we look to the past and to precedent. We look backwards, not because citizens’ rights are constrained to those previously recognized, but because historical constitutional principles provide the framework to define our future as we confront the challenges of today.

Our responsibility, however, is to protect constitutional rights of individuals from legislative enactments that have denied those rights, even when the rights have not yet been broadly accepted, were at one time unimagined, or challenge a deeply ingrained practice or law viewed to be impervious to the passage of time. The framers of the Iowa Constitution knew, as did the drafters of the United States Constitution, that “times can blind us to certain truths and later generations can see that laws once thought necessary and proper in fact serve only to oppress,” and as our constitution “endures, persons in every generation can invoke its principles in their own search for greater freedom” and equality. ...

Finally, it should be recognized that the constitution belongs to the people, not the government or even the judicial branch of government.
p. 15.
The primary constitutional principle at the heart of this case is the doctrine of equal protection. ...

The point in time when the standard of equal protection finally takes a new form is a product of the conviction of one, or many, individuals that a particular grouping results in inequality and the ability of the judicial system to perform its constitutional role free from the influences that tend to make society’s understanding of equal protection resistant to change. As Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes poignantly said, “It is revolting to have no better reason for a rule of law than that so it was laid down in the time of Henry IV. It is still more revolting if the grounds upon which it was laid down have vanished long since, and the rule simply persists from blind imitation of the past.” ...

So, today, this court again faces an important issue that hinges on our definition of equal protection. This issue comes to us with the same importance as our landmark cases of the past. The same-sex-marriage debate waged in this case is part of a strong national dialogue5 centered on a fundamental, deep-seated, traditional institution that has excluded, by state action, a particular class of Iowans. This class of people asks a simple and direct question: How can a state premised on the constitutional principle of equal protection justify exclusion of a class of Iowans from civil marriage?
pp. 16-18.
Therefore, with respect to the subject and purposes of Iowa’s marriage laws, we find that the plaintiffs are similarly situated compared to heterosexual persons. Plaintiffs are in committed and loving relationships, many raising families, just like heterosexual couples. Moreover, official recognition of their status provides an institutional basis for defining their fundamental relational rights and responsibilities, just as it does for heterosexual couples. Society benefits, for example, from providing samesex couples a stable framework within which to raise their children and the power to make health care and end-of-life decisions for loved ones, just as it does when that framework is provided for opposite-sex couples.

In short, for purposes of Iowa’s marriage laws, which are designed to bring a sense of order to the legal relationships of committed couples and their families in myriad ways, plaintiffs are similarly situated in every important respect, but for their sexual orientation. As indicated above, this distinction cannot defeat the application of equal protection analysis through the application of the similarly situated concept because, under this circular approach, all distinctions would evade equal protection review. Therefore, with respect to the government’s purpose of “providing an institutional basis for defining the fundamental relational rights and responsibilities of persons,” same–sex couples are similarly situated to opposite–sex couples.
pp. 28-29.

The case was decided on state constitutional grounds, so it is impossible for Polk County to challenge the ruling in the U.S. Supreme Court. Short of a state constitutional amendment, which simply can't be done in three weeks, this ruling will remain the law in Iowa. Same-sex couples (apparently there are 5,800 of them in Iowa) will start marrying.

The County advanced a number of arguments in support of its claim that the state statute should be upheld: maintaining traditional marriage, promotion of optimal environment to raise children, promotion of procreation, promoting stability in opposite-sex relationships, and conservation of resources. First, the court found no governmental interest in maintaining traditional marriage. Second, it found that same-sex parents fare just as well as opposite sex ones in raising children. It also found that the exclusion of same-sex marriages did not promote procreation or stability in opposite-sex relationships. Finally, it found that the state's interest in conserving resources was not substantially improved by keeping same-sex marriages illegal.

The court then addressed "the reason for the exclusion of gay and lesbian couples from civil marriage left unspoken by the County: religious opposition to same-sex marriage." It found that even though a religious objection is not sufficient to uphold the statute, even some religions support same-sex marriage:
This contrast of opinions in our society largely explains the absence of any religion-based rationale to test the constitutionality of Iowa’s same-sex marriage ban. Our constitution does not permit any branch of government to resolve these types of religious debates and entrusts to courts the task of ensuring government avoids them.
p. 65. Citing the separation of church and state, the court makes clear that this case must be decided on equal protection grounds, and not on free exercise of religion grounds.

Finally, perhaps the best sentence of the whole opinion, on p. 69: "All justices concur."

Today's a proud day to be an Iowan.